The Game UX Interview Series
Interview #6: Chris Pavia
Welcome to The Game UX Interview Series, the series where one Game UX Professional interviews another. I’m Sarah an indie UX Designer, and for this interview I have the pleasure of interviewing a fellow indie developer Chris Pavia! He has worked at numerous studios and has many years of experience both at a studio and indie. He is currently working as a Product Designer at TURVO but enough of my introductions, let’s let him take it away:
Origin story time, what is yours?
I’ve worked almost exclusively at small studios my whole career, giving me the opportunity to learn a lot of different skills which enabled me to work on my own projects on the side. I started out as a General 3D Artist at Farsight Studios, who is probably best known for their Pinball Hall of Fame series. The games we made there were very bare bones due to the tiny team, but I got to try my hand at creating characters, environments, effects, and props. The freedom was great, but I also had a desire to work on games that had more production value to them.
Next I worked as Lead Artist at Santa Cruz Games, a small studio making 3DS games and movie tie-ins. The games I worked on there weren’t very big budget projects but I got to have a large impact on the art and creative direction, and that’s where I started getting interested in the design side of game development. There were usually more design tasks than the two designers had time to tackle so I got to help out with designing UI’s, levels, boss fights, and gameplay systems.
I got the itch to work on game design full time so I moved on to Namco Networks, the mobile division of Namco Bandai, as an iOS Game Designer. While at Namco I started picking up Unity so I could prototype the games I was pitching, I’d much rather have something people could interact with during the green light process instead of a big game design doc no one was going to read. This is where my “indie skills” really started to come together since I was routinely relying on my art, design, and coding skills to get my game ideas across to the management. My interest in design also started to grow beyond just game design to encompass more general Product and UX design. While working on touch-based games I saw how important the UI and UX aspect was, a great game can be rendered unplayable with a poorly thought out interface.
Eventually I moved on to a non-gaming startup as a UX Designer where I designed an app called Texture, which is basically Netflix for magazines. While I can’t speak for all tech startups, the quality of life was much better than in the gaming sector. The pay was much higher, I rarely had to work overtime, and there was a lot more emphasis placed on user research and testing in order to produce the best possible product for our users. It also meant that I could work on my own gaming experiences on the side since it wouldn’t be competing with my day job.
On your Facebook page, you do daily Renders, what made you decide to start doing that?
Deciding to start my 365 Daily Renders project was the culmination of several different factors:
As a lone-wolf indie developer, it can be a long time before you have a final product to show your peers. I wanted to increase the speed at which I has putting out content, both for practice and to get my name and brand out there.
An artist named Beeple popularized the Daily Render practice, and I was amazed at the work he’s constantly creating. His work turned me on to Cinema 4D and Octane so I figured it would be the best way to get up to speed on these programs as quickly as possible.
I want my kids to see me continuously producing work so they can see that creating is a normal part of life. I don’t want them to just be passive consumers of content, I want them to have the mindset of needing to learn how things that interest them are made.
Finishing is one of the most difficult hurdles for an indie to overcome, but it’s a skill that can be worked on and improved over time. You need to learn to not be a perfectionist, to be strategic about where you spend your time and effort. Pick the one thing that’s going to be the focus of any particular piece and minimize your time spent on everything else.
What tips do you have for keeping something like that up?
1 - The main thing is to realize and accept that you’re going to suck at it for a while before you start to get good (like anything else).
2 - Set yourself a time limit and make sure you stick to it. Over time you’ll get a better idea of how much you can get done in that time.
3 - Always keep moving forward, you’ll eventually learn to turn mistakes into features since there’s no time to start again. Go with the flow.
4 - Try and focus on just one thing for each render. Lighting, composition, a new modeling technique, narrative, etc. Just pick one.
5 - Make it a habit by doing it at the same time each day. For me, it’s the 2–3 hours after I put the kids to bed each night.
6 - Use Twitter/Instagram/Facebook/etc to show your work. Having an audience that you feel accountable to helps get through the tough spots.
As an indie developer, how do you incorporate UX?
Most importantly, I try to test early and often. I prioritize playable prototypes over documentation and spreadsheets so I always have something interactive to iterate on. There are a lot of game development meet up groups in the Bay Area so it’s not hard to find people to test the game on. User Interfaces *always* require iteration (as do gameplay systems), so a steady influx of testers is vital. My games and experiences always end up much different than when they started. I try not to be too precious about the original idea, and embrace the act of iterating based on user feedback. As developers we have perfect insight into the detailed workings of our games, but the mental models that regular users will develop could be vastly different that what we intend. The only way to find that out is to test early and test often.
So when you switched to general UI/UX, what techniques or skills did you bring over to your indie process?
Primarily the importance of iteration. No game or product is perfect in its first draft. You need to find the cracks in your design so they can be fixed. Related to this is learning from failure. You often learn more from failure than success so don’t be afraid to fail, though you do have to make the effort to learn from your mistakes. One of my favorite sayings is “An expert is someone who has made every mistake in their field.” The faster you fail, the quicker you find the path to the correct designs and decisions.
What advice do you have to other indie developers who might not have UX under their skill belt?
Incorporating some general User Centered Design practices at a high level isn’t that difficult, but you must make the conscious decision to do so. UX at its core is a system of researching, designing, testing, and iterating.
Research is the process of finding out who your users are. For example if you’re making a Battle Royale game, the experience is probably going to be different if your designing for the hardcore BR crowd than if it’s geared toward bringing in new players who may not have played one before. These two segments are going to have different needs and expectations, which will inform the other steps.
Next is using that knowledge of your audience in the design process. This part of the process often involves a series of expansions and contractions. Design several different ways of doing something (expansion), then focus in on the one that you think meets your needs (contractions). It’s important to not just stop with your first design, because you will stumble upon new ideas and information as you explore.
Once you have your proposed design, you’ll need to test it to see if your assumptions are correct (hint: many of them won’t be). In games, this usually means having someone play the game or attempt to navigate the user interface to complete some task. Once this is complete you’ll have some hard data on which areas need to be iterated on further. Go back to the design phase with the information you’ve gathered and go through the process again. Each pass through the process will improve your product. Note that this applies to both the interface and the game systems themselves.
When in the process do you think it’s important to do that user testing?
As early as possible! As soon as you have something interactive you can start testing. However, the audience that you test on may be different depending on the current state of your project. Early on you may want to test primarily with other developers or people familiar with the development process, who aren’t going to be confused that the game is full of primitive shapes and programmer art. They should be able to focus on whether or not the interactions make sense and are fun apart from their cosmetics. I can guarantee that your game is going to need iteration in some spots, so it’s better to do that before the final assets are made and in place. If you find that the overall information architecture of your game UI doesn’t make sense, it’s going to be much more difficult to drastically reorganize it after all the final assets are in place.
Can you explain what Information Architecture (IA) is and how it can indie devs use it to improve their games?
Information Architecture is how your data is structured, organized, and labelled so as to be easily understood and navigated. If the player wants to upgrade a particular skill on their character, do they know intuitively how to get to that menu from wherever they are in the game currently? How many button clicks does it take to get there? Do the names of those skills make enough sense that I don’t have to read the description of each one to know what it does? Are there instances where I have to remember certain pieces of information because the UI isn’t showing them to me when I need it?
Ideally, it should be clear in your interface how to navigate from global information down to more specific information. For example, if a player wants to change their video resolution they are probably going to be looking for a general “Settings” menu, then going to look for a more specific “Video Settings” area within that for the resolution options. This example constitutes a very simple hierarchy of information, many will be much more complex. The language you use, both visual and textual, needs to be consistent and accessible so players can easily build a mental model of your data hierarchy.
If you could redesign one game (besides your own) which one would it be and why?
I have to say the Pip-Boy UI in Fallout 4. I applaud what they tried to do with using the Pip-Boy as a diegetic UI, but I think they should have given themselves a bit more to work with in terms of color and resolution even if it’s not 100% accurate to the lore. The accessibility of the UI should outweigh the fictional limitations of a fictional device in a fictional world.
Any other advice for indie developers starting out, making their first game?
Make as many small games as you can, as quickly as you can. Many people new to games think they have the best game ideas ever because they don’t realize that design is really making thousands of tiny decisions, not a few big decisions. Great ideas are often ruined by poor implementation of the details. If it’s frustrating to get a 3rd person camera through a small door in the game, I may not play long enough to find out about the innovative gameplay systems or world lore you’ve built. You’ll learn a ton by going through the full process from concept to shipping, and the more often you do that the better you’ll get. Think of “finishing” as a skill you need to improve just like programming, design, or art.
Final and most important/hardest question:
That’s a tough decision! My kids would definitely pick tacos, they always get excited for Taco Tuesday each week (they’re big fans of the Lego Movie). I think I’d have to go with pizza though, there are so many different combinations of things you can put on a pizza! Maybe I’m just not up on the latest state of taco technology, but there seems to be more experimentation in the pizza space. Right down the road from our apartment there’s an Indian/Pizza fusion joint that is one of my favorite restaurants ever. You can get naan instead of crust, top it with butter chicken or paneer, and it’s spicy as heck. It’s one of the places that I have to take everyone that visits (it’s called Spicy Indian Pizza for anyone in the South Bay area). We also have Pizza My Heart nearby, featuring the Big Sur Pizza that comes topped with 40(!!!) cloves of garlic. I can’t think of any taco equivalent that can hold a candle to these edible monstrosities.
There you go, pizza is still winning so far.
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